Cords of Compassion
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017
Mothers Day • May 14, 2017
To Hear the sermon preached, click below
The desert gives up its heat at night as fast as darkness consumes a windowless room when the light switch is turned off. In the shadow of a bush, a child, a boy on the edge of manhood lies crying and a little way off his mother is bent in anguish, crying as well. In that moment, for the first time in the Biblical story, something unimaginable happens: from heaven itself, the voice of an angel, a messenger of the Most High, speaks to the woman and asks, “What troubles you?” The cries of mother and child have been heard in heaven. They’re dying of thirst; she’s perishing from grief. In that moment, this Egyptian woman, a person who has no part in the inheritance of God’s people, is heard and for the first time in the whole Bible story, an angel opens her eyes and she sees, miraculously, an oasis: a garden with water, a place where life can be sustained. Her name is Hagar; her son is Ishamael. God loves them; God saves them.
Today is Mothers Day in our nation, a celebration begun in 1905 by Anna Jarvis, who began by memorializing her own mother and then campaigned to make the day a national holiday. By 1914, the day was proclaimed by President Wilson and celebrated all over the country. Ironically, Jarvis herself became so angry at commercialization of the day that she campaigned against it and was arrested for disturbing the peace. For people who grew up singing, Faith of Our Fathers and other songs that exclusively portray God’s love in patriarchal terms, it’s hard at times to realize that the Bible has no gender barriers in communicating God’s love. So I thought this would be a good day to speak about three unusual mothers whose stories are like a series of lenses, focusing God’s love through their lives to make it visible to us.
The Story of Hagar: God Hears Her Cry
Take Hagar, for example. We celebrate God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai in which God promised land and blessing and descendants as numerous as the stars. At this promise, they leave the settled place of their origin and live on a pilgrimage with no certain destination. Throughout the journey, the promise of a child remains unfulfilled. At last, seeking to bring about by human means what God doesn’t seem to be doing any other way, Sarai turns to the best reproductive technology of her time. She takes an Egyptian slave named Hagar to her husband, gives her to him as a wife and bluntly tells him to sleep with her and produce a child. This kind of surrogate child bearing was common the ancient near east and in this case it’s effective. Hagar conceives, a child is born, named Ishmael and all seems well.
But it isn’t well; it never is when we try to substitute our own time and trouble for God’s plan. Fertility, child bearing, are the ultimate means of value in that world. Sarai’s childlessness makes her envious of Hagar; Hagar’s success at having a son makes her despise Sarai. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how long and awful that quiet war must have been. Finally, Hagar runs away. But she returns after God speaks to her in the desert. For years thereafter, she lives a twilight life: as to Abraham, a second wife, as to Sarah, a despised slave. The boy Ishmael grows. Finally,, in the fullness of Gods’ time, Sarah does conceive; she also bears a son and names him Isaac. Now there is a new problem: Sarah is determined her son will not share the inheritance with Ishmael. So she bluntly tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar. Upon a day, he does so, giving her the barest minimum, a sack of meal, a skin of water, to survive for a time in the desert. It’s a way of killing someone out of sight. When the meal and water run out, Hagar knows the time is up; she puts the boy under a tree, hoping not to see him die. That’s the scene with which we began. Realize who these people are: Egyptians, slaves, people outside the care of the community. But not outside God’s care. It’s a mother’s cry for her son that first calls forth an angel.
The Story of Bathsheba: Sustaining Love Leads to Blessing
Let me share the story of another mother. She’s not a great example; she’s not a character we often talk about in church. More than a thousand years after Hagar, God’s people have created a kingdom, raised up a king, seen him cast down, replaced by another man named David. It’s the dawn of a golden age remembered ever since for David becomes the focus of a new covenant when God again promises permanent presence with God’s people. But David’s virtue is God’s favor, not his own moral character. One day he sees a young woman, desires her, and they have an affair. David arranges to have her husband killed; the woman, named Bathsheba, becomes pregnant but loses the child. In his grief, David loses himself for a time. Yet he comes back; together, David and Bathsheba have another child and name him Solomon.
Solomon is not the obvious heir but his mother maneuvers him into becoming king after David and his rule becomes an almost mythic golden age. The Talmud calls him a prophet, so too does the Quran. It is Solomon who begins the process of writing down what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. But without Bathsheba, there would be no Solomon: it is her perseverance and faith the lead to his life. Without it, we would have no Genesis, no Exodus, no record of how God saved God’s people and covenanted with them. It is Bathsheba, often depicted as an evil temptress, who laid this foundation for us.
The Story of Gomer: God’s Mother Love
Let me tell one more story. Three centuries or so after Solomon, his kingdom has split in two. The northern half, called Israel, has become a place where the rich get richer by oppressing the poor. They have failed to keep God’s covenant and God responds as God always does by calling forth a prophet, a person to speak God’s word. His name is Hosea and his call is to speak about the nations’ faithlessness. Like many prophets, he uses vivid pictures. This is a tough picture to present, so I’m just going to read exactly what it says in the Book of Hosea.
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”
The wife he takes his named Gomer and she has two children. It’s not a pretty story; it’s like describing an operation to remove a tumor. We hope the result is good but the details are difficult. Gomer’s story and the prophecy of Hosea are a terrible indictment of Israel and it’s faithlessness. Over and over again, the rich have violated God’s commands. Over and over again, Israel has failed to live out God’s rules for a community of care.
Yet in that story this light shines out. After all the terrible words of indictment, after all the lists of reasons to punish Israel, after God offers the awful image of an unfaithful wife, God comes back to the core problem of love. Just as Hosea loves Gomer, God loves Israel.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
Now cords of compassion are very simple. I know that every parent here can remember how toddlers run away at the slightest inattention. Israelite mothers, working in the fields, came up with the same solution sometimes used by parents today: a sort of leash to limit how far the child could go, how much trouble he could find. The name for this mother’s leash is a cord or compassion.
Stories of Mothers Showing God’s Love
These are stories of women who do not fit the mold of mothers. I suppose somewhere today someone is talking about Mary the Mother of Jesus or perhaps Sarah, Abraham’s covenant partner whose child Isaac is the sign of covenant fulfillment. I wanted to share these stories because they are not just Biblical stories, they are emblems of how God uses the most unusual mothers as well as the ones we more often remember to let some love in. Gomer becomes a mother precisely to demonstrate faithlessness but in the demonstration, the surprising insight is given that God is not limited by some rule of rewards and punishments in dealing with us; God does not give up even when we are given over to faithlessness. Bathsheba is often a symbol of temptation and adultery but she is also the gateway to the golden age of Solomon when God’s Word is written and wisdom is given. Hagar is an Egyptian slave. Hundreds of years later, the tables will turn, the Hebrews will be enslaved by Egyptians and God will hear the cries of those mothers but here God hears this mother and for the first time sends an angel. Who would have thought someone so outside the boundaries would be the gateway for God’s messenger and God’s message?
These stories are meant to break our boundaries as well. Somewhere today, Syrian mothers are crying; can you imagine heaven hearing them? What should we believe then, when someone tells us they are outside the boundaries of compassion? Somewhere today, some woman is trying to put a life back together after a faithless marriage; is it really enough to say what goes around comes around or is there more, is there some way we can enact God’s surprising love that stops the merry go round and lets people off?
This is Mothers Day; it’s become a day to honor women and that’s a noble, and worthwhile thing. Shouldn’t it be more? Shouldn’t it be a day when we hear in the image of mother love, the voice of God saying, “I drew you with cords of compassion; I could never let you go?” For surely, in covenant, in faith, we are the people bound by cords of compassion; we are the people meant to make those cords clear to those who have not understood they are God’s children. In the love of God, there are no boundaries, there is only the endless grace of trying to raise up the children of God to celebrate God’s love by becoming a blessing every day.